Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
The Six Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin
Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are certainly to be placed at the pinnacle of the entire violin repertoire; however, they were not meant to be insurmountable. Bach, ever the keen pedagogue, always composed music that was intended to be played as well as contemplated. It has been suggested these sonatas and partitas must have been unplayable in the age of their composition. After Bach’s death, though, the violin solos did attract the attention of the better violinists of the time, who mainly saw in these works a means to better their technique. Yet it is doubtful they were designed in principle as didactic works; they should rather be regarded as continuing and bringing to its apex the German tradition of writing works for unaccompanied violin, like those of Biber, Westhoff and Pisendel. They are, in fact, the first examples of truly “transcendent” works for solo violin—technically speaking, of course, but especially musically.
No one really knows for what occasion Bach composed such exacting and brilliant works, except that they cropped up during the period when he was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, between December 1717 and April 1723. We can pinpoint the year 1720 as that of the Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato, Bach having then made a fair copy of them under this title. This precious manuscript was reportedly saved from ruin in 1814, when it was found in St. Petersburg among papers destined to a butter shop. A number of non-autograph copies had been in circulation in the latter half of the 18th century, but the first complete edition of the solo works wasn’t published until 1802, by Simrock of Bonn.
No one knows, either, for whom these Sonatas and Partitas were composed. Bach himself was a fairly competent violinist, but it is unlikely he could have pulled off the more difficult passages of these works. Perhaps they had been destined to his colleague Pisendel in Weimar, or to the concertmaster of the Cöthen orchestra, Joseph Speiss. But it is important to remember that these works should not be approached merely as a display of dextrous wizardry—brilliant, yes, but not virtuosic in the strictly “mechanical” sense. Some of the pieces are certainly very difficult to play, but no one would enjoy hearing them performed as though they were.
The commentator could choose to walk the listener through each piece, each section, each bar if need be. He can say that the Sonatas here follow the form of the Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) in four movements and that the Partitas are dance suites of varying length modeled after the Sonata da camera (chamber sonata); he can say that preludes introduce, that a chaconne is a series of variations on a repeated harmonic pattern, that fugues are fugal and that dances are dance-like. But having said all that, nothing, in effect, has been said. Words feebly attempt to describe what only the heart and soul can understand. They alone fully comprehend what the music is about, when and how it speaks to the senses, to the mind or to God. Or to all at once. Bach never explained his music, nor did he have to. The music itself speaks, and sings.
So listen closely to what Bach has to say… Marvel once again at Bach’s grasp of the human spirit, as profound as an adagio, as elaborate as a fugue, as lilting as a heartfelt song, as grand as a chaconne, as lithe as a minuet or gigue.
© Jacques-André Houle